A face to die for, p.2
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       A Face to Die For, p.2

         Part #6 of Forensic Instincts series by Andrea Kane
 

  So the team was down to five, counting Hero.

  “Both Marc and Patrick have said they’re available if necessary,” Casey continued. “But it won’t be necessary. We’ll handle whatever’s thrown at us. They deserve this time away.”

  “Given their reasons for being away, I’d opt for Marc’s scenario any day of the week,” Ryan said, leaning back in his chair and interlacing his fingers behind his head. “Two weeks in Aruba trumps two weeks in Virginia and DC. Not that I believe for a minute that Marc and Madeline are spending much time on the beach.” One dark eyebrow rose. “Which reminds me, boss…”

  “Don’t even think of going there.” Casey shot him down before he’d even gotten started. “You won’t like my reaction.”

  “Gotcha.” Ryan had the good sense to look sheepish. That was rarely the case. His ego matched his genius, at least when it came to his strategic skills and hacking abilities. But the rest? He gave little credence to his magnetic Black Irish looks and well-muscled body, the former being a happenstance of birth and the latter being a product of his gym rat tendencies. And frankly, though he had a healthy sexual appetite, women who stared longingly at him and looked ready to jump his bones irked the shit out of him.

  He preferred a challenge.

  At that thought, his gaze shifted to the willowy blonde sitting two chairs away. Talk about polar opposites. Claire Hedgleigh, or Claire-voyant as Ryan called her just to piss her off, was his one-eighty. He was all about facts and strategic thinking. She was all about auras and insights and whatever the hell claircognizants or psychics—or whatever you called them—used as their core database. He couldn’t argue with Claire’s success ratio, not that that made him a believer. What he also couldn’t argue with was the way she fired him up—on all fronts—in a way that no one ever had. It was more than a little unsettling.

  The object of his thoughts spoke up. “If what Brianna Mullen said on the phone is true, then this is a dangerous, predatory situation.” Claire tucked a wisp of blonde hair behind her ear, looking at Casey and opening the dialogue about their potential client. “I realize that stalking is far from uncommon, but what she’s describing is dark and obsessive, with the potential for physical harm.”

  Casey nodded. “Let’s just remember that we don’t have all the facts yet. Brianna gave us only pieces of information.”

  “That’s because she was hysterical.”

  “I know. But she didn’t even give us the name of her stalker. Does she know him? It sure sounded like she did. Is he an ex? A grad school classmate? Or is he a stranger? I want to hear her full story in person.” Casey took a sip of coffee. “That’s the only way we can make a judgement about whether or not she’s reading the situation clearly, and how serious the risks are.”

  “Can I stay for the whole meeting?” Emma Stirling interrupted.

  As always, Emma’s enthusiasm made Casey smile. At twenty-two, Emma was the team’s newest and youngest member. But what she lacked in years, she made up for in life experience. She’d been orphaned when she was young and had been in and out of foster care for years, often living on the streets. She’d survived because she’d used her cunning mind—together with the fact that she looked like an innocent Alice in Wonderland—to hone her pickpocketing skills until she rivaled the Artful Dodger.

  That life had grown old.

  She’d joined FI, reformed and eager, and her street smarts had already proved her an invaluable team member. Not to mention, she had guts. She’d been instrumental in solving FI’s last case, putting her own life at risk to do it.

  Emma had more than proven her loyalty. She’d joined FI as the receptionist. But she’d turned into so much more.

  “Of course you’re staying,” Casey replied. “Just do your thing out front when the doorbell rings, and then join Ms. Mullen when you show her in.”

  “Cool.” Emma grinned, immensely pleased with Casey’s response. “As long as I’m part of the investigative team, I don’t mind getting coffee, managing schedules, and answering telephones and doors.”

  “Nice to know, since that’s what you were hired to do,” Ryan said with teasing sarcasm. He had a lot of respect for Emma. The kid was a firecracker.

  “I got a promotion, remember?” she shot back.

  “Would you let us forget?” Now Claire was laughing.

  Casey met Emma’s gaze. “Correction: you didn’t get a promotion. You earned one. We’re proud of you. Now do as good a job on this case as you did on the last one—without scaring us to death this time.”

  “Will do,” Emma said, a shadow of memory crossing her face. But just as quickly, it was gone. That nightmare was over. She was healing with time—and the support of her teammates.

  Casey glanced around. “We all got electronic copies of Brianna Mullen’s deep bio, courtesy of Ryan. Questions?”

  Claire, Ryan, and Emma shook their heads.

  “This is comprehensive, as always.” Casey scanned the documents on her iPad Pro, opening each one using the Box app. She’d already read them through three times. Ryan turned up information that few others could—not unless they knew how and where to look and were willing to go the route of the less-than-legal.

  First came the easy stuff.

  Brianna Mullen.

  Age: twenty-seven.

  Height: five-foot-seven.

  Weight: one hundred thirty pounds.

  Race: African-American.

  Background: grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

  Current living arrangements: a studio apartment on Waverly Place near Washington Square Park. (Note: For past three days, has been staying with Lina Brando, her best friend, at her one-bedroom apartment on West Eighth Street.)

  Occupation: full-time graduate student at NYU Stern Business School, studying for her MBA in marketing. GPA: 4.0.

  Current Employment: During school year, works twenty hours a week at the Starbucks on Fourth Street, about a block away from Stern Business School. Currently (summer months), working full-time at Zolmer Advertising, Inc. (See next section: prior employment).

  Prior employment: 2011-2016 (full-time)—Zolmer Advertising, Inc., Madison Avenue, New York. Jobs held: Media Associate, (2013-2016), Junior Media Associate, (2011-2013), focusing on clients’ digital, mobile, and social media marketing programs.

  Then after a list of Brianna’s online and social accounts came the more probing stuff.

  Personal life: Dated infrequently and discerningly. Studied religiously. Had a small nucleus of close friends (list appended as Schedule A), all of whom helped her start an anonymous GoFundMe page for female stalking victims. A portion of the donations helped her pay Forensic Instincts’ fee. No arrests. No drinking. No drugs. No falling-out with family. Mother a pediatrician; father an investment banker—both affluent enough and willing enough to pay for Brianna’s tuition and a good chunk of her living costs. The rest, Brianna paid, including all personal expenses.

  Actions taken re stalking threat: three visits to the NYPD Sixth Precinct to report incidents. None of the attempts yielded any results other than three filed complaints.

  “She’s scared enough to be staying with
her best friend, rather than at her own place,” Casey noted aloud. “Also, given the support she’s getting on her GoFundMe page, it’s clear that, while the police might not believe her, her friends do. That speaks to her character and her social circle. Or, if the stalker is someone they know, his lack of character. Or both.”

  Claire nodded. “She seems to be a fine young woman, a hard worker with a supportive bunch of friends and family, and no known vices or offenses.”

  “No unknown ones, either,” Ryan responded with an emphatic glare. “Deep bio means deep bio. If she’d gotten drunk and thrown up even once, that data would be in those searches.”

  “Of course it would.” Claire rolled her eyes. “My apologies, Mr. Peabody.”

  Ryan’s glare disappeared, replaced by a huge grin. “The ultimate genius straight from Rocky and Bullwinkle. Great analogy. Thanks for the compliment.”

  “I didn’t mean it as one.”

  “True. In that case, the idea of accepting your apology hangs in the balance.”

  “My heart breaks.”

  Casey was about to intervene, when the thermal and proximity sensors registered a heat source at the front door.

  “Ms. Brianna Mullen has arrived,” Yoda announced. “Body temperature elevated. Respiration rate high. No weapons detected.”

  “I’m on my way, Yoda.” Emma sprang to her feet and hurried down the hall.

  She returned a minute later with their client at her side and Hero at her heels.

  CHAPTER 2

  Brianna Mullen was a striking young woman with high cheekbones, a long mane of curly black hair, and wide dark eyes. Beneath those dark eyes were even darker circles, and inside their depths was sheer terror.

  So much for her misreading the threat. This girl was genuinely traumatized.

  “Hi, Ms. Mullen—or may I call you Brianna?” Casey rose and extended her hand. “I’m Casey Woods, president of Forensic Instincts.”

  “Yes, call me Brianna,” the girl said in a quiet voice, shaking Casey’s proffered hand. “It’s such a relief to meet you.”

  Casey introduced the rest of the team and then gestured toward the chair they reserved for clients. “Have a seat. Can we get you anything—coffee, tea, water?”

  “No thank you.” Brianna sat down. She crossed her legs—rigidly, so as to still their trembling—and placed tightly interlaced fingers in her lap.

  Leaning forward before retaking her seat, Casey handed Brianna some paperwork. “That’s our contract. Please take your time and review it before you sign.”

  As if on autopilot, Brianna took the papers, barely scanning them before placing them on the floor beside her purse. “They’re fine. Do I pay you now?”

  “First, let’s talk. Do we have your permission to videotape this meeting? If we don’t come to a mutual agreement today, we’ll delete the recording and it will be wiped from our database.”

  Alarm flashed across Brianna’s face. “You have to take my case. I have nowhere else to go. Please,” she begged. “I’m being stalked by a psycho who’s taking steps toward hurting me—or worse. I’m not paranoid,” she added, gazing around the room with the realization that she sounded as if she were exactly that. “I don’t have many hard facts. But I do have some—along with strong feelings and instincts.” She turned her gaze to Claire. “I heard that you’re a psychic. That has to mean that you trust in things you just know but can’t prove. I’m appealing to that now. Please don’t turn me down.”

  A flash of compassion crossed Claire’s face. She hated that Forensic Instincts had become so successful that they’d captured the media’s attention. Less anonymity. More revelations. Much had been made about her claircognizance—the metaphysical sense of clear-knowing—although she’d stayed as far out of the limelight as possible. Still, her gift was publicized enough for potential clients to be aware of it and to seize the feeling of hope it provided.

  That part sucked. But right now her every instinct was screaming that Brianna’s fears were as real as her desperation. And Claire just couldn’t ignore that.

  “I’m open to what you have to say,” she finally replied, balancing her answer so as to calm Brianna without sealing the deal on their services. “I can see how distraught you are.”

  Brianna was fumbling in her purse, her attention now turned back to Casey. “I have enough money to make an initial payment. Tell me your total fee and I’ll take a second job to pay the full amount. I’ll take a semester off if I need to. And if I can’t pull that off, I’ll go to my parents... I didn’t tell them anything because I didn’t want them to go crazy with worry… But if I have to…”

  “Stop.” Casey held up her palm. “We’re not turning you away. We just want to get all your facts—and your feelings—before we make this a fait accompli. As for our fee, it’s negotiable depending on the financial well-being of our client. So put that concern aside. We’ll work something out.”

  Brianna visibly relaxed. “Thank you. And, yes, you’re free to videotape our meeting.”

  “Good. Yoda?” Casey summoned him.

  “Yes, Casey,” the computerized voice responded. “Shall I turn on the video-recording devices now?”

  “Please.”

  Brianna was looking around, as startled as all their clients were when they first “met” Yoda.

  “Our virtual team member,” Casey explained briefly. “Now let’s get started.”

  “Okay.” Brianna sucked in her breath. “As I told you on the phone, I’m a grad student at Stern. I just completed my first year. The professor who taught my marketing class this spring was Dr. Thomas Hanover.” She visibly shuddered at the mention of his name. “A little over a month before the semester ended, he started making sexual advances toward me—first subtle, then overt.”

  “Can you be more specific about subtle versus overt?” Casey asked.

  A nod. “He’d brush up against me or lean over my shoulder to look at my computer screen while his gaze was pinned to my breasts. It made my skin crawl. But I kept telling myself I was imagining it.”

  Brianna stopped to swallow back tears. “Then one day he asked me to come see him about my work during office hours. I made sure it was daytime and that the building was full. Not that it mattered. He didn’t touch me at all. He didn’t even blackmail me with a bad grade. He simply said he wanted me and that he knew the feelings were mutual. He flat out stated that we should act on those feelings, immediately but discreetly—not only to protect his job but his family. He has a wife and two young kids. His eyes were flat and empty when he told me that. It’s like his family was information, not people. I can’t explain it. But it was eerie. And as for his plans for me—they weren’t a request. They were an order. One that was repeated three times after that.”

  “He propositioned you four times?” Ryan asked.

  “Yes. His office was the first time. Then, twice in empty classrooms, where I was the last to leave and he obviously followed me. And once right outside the ladies’ room in an empty corridor. Each time his tone was rougher, and the look in his eyes was scarier than the time before. Especially when I turned him down. The last time his teeth were clenched, and I swear there was a vein pulsing at his f
orehead. He looked so crazy that I was braced for him to grab me.”

  “But he didn’t,” Casey said. “He wanted to keep it at his word versus yours. Any physical assault would have given you tangible evidence to share with the police and probably generate some interest on their part. What happened next?”

  Brianna’s fingers tightened in her lap. “He stopped asking me to come to his office or ‘accidentally’ running into me. Instead, he confined things to our classroom, which in some ways was more terrifying. I felt like a trapped animal. He kept making eye contact with me during class—constant, threatening eye contact. He wanted me to know he wouldn’t stop. I just didn’t know what he planned to do next, or when. But I was afraid. I made sure not to be alone on campus. I walked in crowds, especially at night. I kept to well-lit areas.”

  She swallowed. “That wasn’t enough. Twice I saw him standing on the campus grounds staring at me. He wasn’t anywhere near his office or the quad where his classes are held. But he was in the exact path I took every day at that time. He was standing still as a statue, hands in his pockets, fixing his hostile gaze on me. It was no accident.”

  “No, it wasn’t,” Casey agreed. “It was purposeful, a communication that he was taking this fixation outside of class.”

  “That’s when I went to the police for the first time.”

  “And they blew you off,” Claire supplied. “An upstanding professor, an overly imaginative student—there was no basis for an investigation.”

  “Exactly. They took my complaint, then bluntly told me there was nothing they could do for me without evidence of a physical assault.” Brianna ran a nervous hand through her hair. “The next time I saw him was outside the Starbucks where I work when school’s in session. I was making drinks. I looked up and he was standing right outside the front windows, his gaze on me. Only me. He was waiting for me to look up and see him. When I did, he gave me an evil smile and then walked away.”

 
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